My 2020 first quarter literary nonfiction reading included two books that focus on the formative years of two very different people: twentieth century aviation pioneer Beryl Markham and eighteenth century wannabe author—and surelywas forger—William-Henry Ireland. Both books are readily available, new and used, from booksellers and in libraries.
West with the Night
Beryl Markham. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983. (paperback) ISBN: 0-86547-118-5
West with the Night is an autobiography written by a pioneering woman quite different from the calico and wagon train pioneer typically encountered in American classrooms. Beryl Markham was born in England but, from the time she was four, the motherless child was reared in Kenya where her teachers and playmates were the natives.
Markham’s story opens with her childhood adventures going hunting barefoot with her Murani friends, seeing “dik-dik and leopard, kongoni and warthog, buffalo, lion, and the ‘hare that jumps.'” She relates an incident which her friend Bishon Singh told her father Beryl had been “moderately eaten by the large lion.”
Markham’s father clawed a farm out of the land, in true pioneer fashion. It was beginning to be profitable when a drought killed it. Markham’s father moved to Peru to raise horses. Beryl, 17, decided to stay in Africa and try for a job training thoroughbreds. Her father advised she saddle up and move to Molo, a town where he knew a few stable owners would be willing to risk having a girl train horses. “After that, work and hope,” he said. “But never hope more than you work.”
Markham was becoming a successful trainer when a chance encounter with a pilot changed her trajectory for a few years. She took flying lessons and became a bush pilot.
In 1936 she decided to try to become the first person to fly solo from London to New York, which meant flying for more than 24 hours in the dark. In the cold atmosphere, the fuel tank vents iced over. Starved of fuel, her plane went down on Cape Breton Island. West became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west, but hadn’t made it to New York as she’d hoped to do.
Markham ends her autobiography with that Atlantic flight, but she went on to have further adventures. She went back to Africa and resumed her career as a trainer, becoming the most successful horse trainer in Kenya for a time.
When first published, West with the Night was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions, and Ernest Hemingway praised the book, but it wasn’t a great commercial success. The autobiography was rediscovered and republished in 1983. It ranks eighth in National Geographic‘s list of best adventure books. It’s a beautifully written story that both teenage boys and girls can appreciate.
The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare
Doug Stewart. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 1910. ISBN: 978-0-360-81831-8
If students are inspired by Markham’s autobiography, let’s hope they won’t be inspired by William-Henry Ireland’s story as told by Doug Stewart.
Stewart, a freelance journalist, tells the true story of 19-year-old William-Henry Ireland who in 1795 began writing documents that he passed off as the works of Shakespeare.
His father, Samuel Ireland, who thought William-Henry a dolt, got him a job as an unpaid apprentice to a lawyer who was never in the office. Most of William-Henry’s work was sorting through old documents.
William-Henry’s father, an ambitious author and illustrator of a series of travel books, had a keen instinct for what appealed to the public taste and he was obsessed with everything Shakespearean. He collected memorabilia, particularly items associated with famous or notorious figures. Samuel was not adverse to fudging the truth when it was to his advantage to do so.
William-Henry was not stupid, but he had been a failure in school. He had seen no reason for learning Latin or math since he had no plans to use either. (Does this sound like anybody in your classes?) However, he read voraciously, was fascinated by the theater, and loved to copy verse by his favorite authors in an elegant, Elizabethan script.
William-Henry penned his first forgery more or less as a joke. When his father and his father’s friends were taken in, William-Henry was both amused and angry: He was amused that experts didn’t recognize the deception and angry that his father didn’t think him smart enough to have concocted the forgery and its cover story.
Samuel saw fame and profits if William-Henry could get him more manuscripts. Samuel particularly wanted something by Shakespeare: no handwritten copies of his plays were knows to exist. Samuel pushed his son to produce the desired scripts, not realizing that William-Henry would literally produce them.
Stewart takes readers on a tour through late 18th century London using the psychologically damaged William-Henry and his crazy family as the tour guides. Stewart’s text includes 16 pages of intriguing images, and his descriptions of the English playhouses at the end of the 18th century will entertain anyone with even a passing interest in theater.
The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare will probably be heavier reading for high school students than Markham’s story, because Stewart’s book requires wider background knowledge. You might to have students for whom the book is too tough read Stewart’s article about William-Henry Ireland’s forgery career “To Be…Or Not: The Greatest Shakespeare Forgery” in Smithsonian magazine. On the other hand, the emotional and personality issues that the book raises may make it worth the extra effort for students who have what are politely called “issues at home.”
What’s the last nonfiction book you choose to read that wasn’t assigned reading?
Tell me about that book
Was that book:
on a topic related to the subject you teach?
a how-to book?
a biography/autobiography of sports or entertainment figure?
a history book?
something you just thought sounded interesting?
Did you read anything I might be interested in?
What, if anything, from that book have you used in teaching?
What, if anything, from the book have you found yourself thinking about since you read it?
What, if anything, from that book have you shared with someone else?
Would you read another book on the same topic?
Would you look for another book by the same author?
Have you recommended the book to someone else?
Have you signed up for the author’s email list, if the author has one?
Your answers to each of those questions tells me whether you think the book was worth the time you invested in reading it.
Why your answers matter to you
The postmaster in a small community in which I lived told me he hated reading and he hated writing, but every time I’d get a shipment of books, he’d ask, “Did you get anything I might be interested in?” If I told him about a book that he though he’d be interested in, he’d make a note of the title.
Like my postmaster, a large number of your students and mine complete high school without ever reading a book that was interesting to them. The wider the range of nonfiction you read, the more likely it is you’ll be able to suggest books that your students might also find interesting reading.
Students don’t become good readers unless at least some of what they read is interesting to them. To be able to point students to well-written books that may interest them, you need to be knowledgeable about at least some nonfiction titles on topics that may not be your first choice of rainy-day reading.
Why your answer matters to me
As my long-time readers know, nearly all the writing I’ve done has been instructional materials that nobody reads unless they are paid to. Before I drop off my twig, I’d like to write a practical nonfiction book that is read by people who aren’t paid to read it.
You, for example.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a book about how to have mutually pleasant visits with people in nursing homes. A former nursing home activities director at one of the homes at which I volunteered is working with me. We have grand plans for a series of short, illustrated, square “gift books” that we refer to as our “Thanks for Dropping By” books. “Thanks for dropping by” is what nursing home residents always said when I left.
If we decide to go ahead with the how-too books, Ill ask you to join my email list. I hope when/if you see the invitation, you’ll sign up, identifying yourself as a potential reader of my practical, nonfiction books for people who aren’t paid to read them.
English teachers have a problem with nonfiction: They think it’s boring. Frankly, a great deal of nonfiction is boring because it was never intended to be useful or interesting: It exists just to document forgettable facts.
An insurance policy and some of your school superintendent’s memos are boring because their entire purpose is to record information that you’d forget immediately if you just heard it. Such nonfiction accomplishes its goal if you receive the paper so you could look up the information later if you need it. It can be boring because nobody actually reads it.
All nonfiction for ELA classes should be useful
The nonfiction we have students read and write in English Language Arts classes ought to be an entirely different species of writing than the forgettable facts documents.
The nonfiction for class use needs to be useful, memorable, and factual. Facts are the protoplasm of all nonfiction.
Nonfiction is presented by the writer as a factual record. Although a writer might not have had all the facts or may have inaccurately presented the facts, readers should assume that the writer is telling the truth as far as she knew it at the time she wrote it.
You must teach students that just because someone wrote a nonfiction text does not mean the author approves of or agrees with the beliefs or actions shown in that text. Some authors deliberately write about ideas with which they disagree. That’s those authors’ way of trying to understand how anyone could hold those ideas.
Practical nonfiction is useful information
One species of nonfiction our students need to be able to read is what Sol Stein calls practical nonfiction. It’s purpose is to convey information so that readers can put it to use. Practical nonfiction is also the kind of writing you and I and our students are required to do, and thus it is the kind of writing you and I are required to teach.
A report on the success (or lack thereof) of the latest marketing campaign is an example of practical nonfiction. So is a book on how to clean your house in 15 minutes a day and an article in the Sunday newspaper about the potential uses the city council has identified for the old knitting mill property.
Each of those nonfiction pieces provides information which the recipient is expected to act upon in some way. The action might be to design a totally different marketing plan, or clean house in 15 minutes a day, or vote either to retain the current city council or throw the bums out.
Most of the nonfiction in newspapers, magazines, and books is practical nonfiction. Practical nonfiction is a several notches above useless nonfiction, but it’s still pretty prosaic stuff.
Literary nonfiction is alluring
Literary nonfiction is totally different from the other two uses of nonfiction. Literary nonfiction tells a true story. It presents unaltered facts about real people, real places and real events using the scene-creating and story-telling techniques of fiction to draw readers into being interested in a topic in which they had no previous interest.
Literary nonfiction is much more difficult to do well than fiction. Literary nonfiction is held simultaneously to two very different standards and must meet both of them.
First, it must be nonfiction and, as such, it is assessed by journalistic standards. That means, information in literary nonfiction must be documented facts that can be verified by independent sources. There can be no invented sources, no fabricated quotes. The literary nonfiction writer has to stick to facts. And one-source stories aren’t acceptable.
Although the literary nonfiction writer is denied the option of making things up, she’s required to set the story in scenes—at specific times in specific places—which are described well enough that readers understand how the time and place impacted the characters.
The literary nonfiction writer also has to use fictional techniques such as dialogue and carefully selected details to develop the story’s characters. That’s where the nonfiction writer must exercise creativity to bring alive revealing scenes without falsifying facts or inventing language.
Teach both practical and literary nonfiction
You and I need to teach students to write practical nonfiction. Every student will be required to write practical nonfiction.
We should teach our students to read literary nonfiction. Literary nonfiction has the ability to make people interested in topics that they would not have suspected would interest them.
Literary nonfiction can open the world to students.
Each quarter I post brief reviews of a few books of literary nonfiction that I think teachers could use in English Language Arts classes. Some of the works have logical tie-ins with required courses in other disciplines; others would pair nicely with fictional works that tackle some of the same issues.
Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. Amistad: 2018. 171 p. (Note: Some copies have an alternate subtitle, “The story of the last ‘black cargo.'”
Barracoon contains the first-person story of Cudjo Lewis, the last known surviving African from the last American slave ship to bring human cargo to America for sale. The slender volume tells his tale in the man’s own words, as recorded by author Zora Neale Hurston in 1927 and 1928, when Cudjo was 67 years old.
Hurston draws from Cudjo the story of his life in Africa, his enslavement, the Atlantic crossing, his experiences as a slave laborer. She uses spelling that recreates Cudjo’s pronunciation, which takes a little getting used to, but isn’t difficult to decipher.
Cudjo tells of his joy at Emancipation after he’d been enslaved five-and-half years and his grief to realize he couldn’t go back home. He talks about his life and his family in Alabama.
Besides Cudjo’s first-person account, which occupies about 100 pages, the book includes an introduction which provides information about the voyage of the Clotilda, which brought Cudjo to America, stories that Cudjo told Hurston, and a glossary.
Hurston’s first-person narrative could be paired with the author’s 1937 novel Their Eyes We Watching God, which is written from a former female slave’s point of view. It might also be paired with Thomas Dixon Jr.’s historically significant novel The Clansman.
Blood River by Tim Butcher
Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through the World’s Most Dangerous Country by Tim Butcher. Grove Press. 2008. 363 p.
Blood River is a work of literary nonfiction that John le Carré described as “a masterpiece.”
It’s author, Tim Butcher, had just been appointed Africa Correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph in 2000 when he read that the Telegraph had sent another reporter, Henry Morton Stanley of “Mr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame, to Africa more than a century earlier. That slim personal connection inspired Butcher to retrace Stanley’s more significant but now almost forgotten four-year achievement: mapping the nearly 3000-mile Congo River.
Though warned the journey is suicidal, Butcher persists. He’s arranged for a protector who turns out to be a pygmy, five feet tall and half Butcher’s weight. That’s just the first of many frightening surprises that awaited the author. By his own admission, Butcher is no macho strong guy. He is persistent, however, and quite willing to follow orders from people who know more than he does.
The Congo flows through country that in the year 2000 is far less modern than it was when Stanley was there in the 1870s. During his 44 days of travel, he visits places Stanley visited, compares what he sees to Stanley’s photographs of the same places, and tells what happened to cause the regression.
Butcher obviously did his homework before he went on the trip. There’s a wealth of information in Blood River. He writes knowledgeably about the Congo’s plant and animal life, relates stories about Joseph Conrad’s experience in the Congo, and points out places where events in The African Queen were filmed.
Blood River could be paired with Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness; both are set in the same location just about 100 years apart. Blood River explains that some historical detail that Conrad’s critics thought he made up when he wrote Heart of Darkness were actually true.
Ethical Wisdom by Mark Matousek
Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good by Mark Matousek. Doubleday. 2011. 251 p.
At age eight, when his mother gave him a blue coat which he knew she stole, Mark Matousek began a life-long quest to discover the ultimate truth: How should we live?
In Ethical Wisdom, Matousek blends research from the fields of the hard sciences and social sciences, with ideas from writers and philosophers to explain why humans do what they do.
The title not withstanding, the volume is less about what people ought to do than it is about what they actually do. Much of what Matousek has to say is directly related to human communication. For example, he explains that “Self-control depends on language,” but shows that emotions are caught rather than linguistically transmitted.
His focus on communications is a primary reason to use Matousek’s volume in an ELA classroom. A second reason to use it is that Matousek writes well, with careful attention to words that convey both his literal and emotional meaning. But Matousek is definitely not a typical stuffy, textbookish author: Even his bibliography is set up to be readily accessible.
The first three sections of Matousek’s book have enough hard data to be used as reading for both humanities and social science courses, if, for example, you are in a setting where students are taking courses for dual enrollment credits. The sections four and five have little scientific unpinning. They are primarily Matousek’s personal beliefs, derived largely from Eastern religions traditions. I’d not require students to read those two sections.
Most chapters in the book are under 10 pages. Finding complementary long or short fiction for students to read on topics discussed in the first three sections of Ethical Wisdom would not be difficult.
John C. Mutter was a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
That event led Mutter to study the social sciences to understand why natural disasters are disastrous in ways that have little to do with their physical consequences.
Mutter reached the conclusion, “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”
Natural disasters do some good in, for example, destroying unsafe infrastructure. Even those “good” effects, Mutter saws, hurt the poor far more than they do the more affluent and their negative impacts affect the poor for far longer.
The Disaster Profiteers would be good literary nonfiction for older teens, particularly those in dual enrollment programs, and for adults in post-secondary training.
Mutter does a great job of making the science of natural disasters understandable. His presentation of how economists measure the scale of disasters is less readily grasped: A national economy isn’t as visual as a national disaster. But with help from some informal writing prompts, students could identify and master the big ideas.
The images in the book are primarily graphs, charts, and maps.
Unlike the other two literary nonfiction books discussed here, Alan Axelrod’s Profiles in Folly is a not a single story, but a collection of 35 magazine-length “cautionary tales” about bad decisions and the people who made them.
Some of the bad decisions were made by political leaders, others by businessmen, military leaders, and engineers.
The stories cover decisions from 1250 BC (the Trojan Horse) to 2005 (George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina). Topics include smoking, the space shuttle, planned obsolescence, and the Pony Express.
Profiles in Folly would lend itself to a half-year or full-year high school project involving multiple faculty who assign students certain of the chapters to read, discuss, and write about in the context of a particular class.
I began last week suggesting literary nonfiction titles that teachers might find useful to have of teens and adults read in various courses. Today’s recommendation, however, is a book for educators.
Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t is literary nonfiction aimed primarily at the education community, broadly interpreted to include not only public-school teachers and administrators but also school boards, college administrators, and legislators at the state and federal levels.
Prothero discusses the extent of Americans’ ignorance of religions (including their own) as a civic problem. Ignorance of The King James Bible, for example, renders students incapable of understanding allusions found in virtually every type of fiction and nonfiction.
Prothero argues that religious illiteracy is not only handicapping but downright dangerous. America’s foreign policy is being set by people who have little understanding of the pivotal role religion plays in other cultures’ attitudes and actions, he says.
He contends that Americans cannot confront the challenges facing the nation today—domestic as well as foreign— without an understanding of the role of religion in American and world history.
Prothero refutes popular misconceptions about what legally can and cannot be taught in public schools, and tackles the issue of whether a student can refuse to participate in the pledge of allegiance.
The book includes an 85-page “Dictionary of Religious Literacy” and a religious literacy quiz with answers.
Note to readers: This post has been revised, I hope for the better. When I published it April 5, 2019, Internet gremlins duplicated, deleted, and rearranged elements until they the content was unrecognizable.
Although short literary nonfiction has its place in the academic curriculum, if we are going to attempt to encourage students to become lifelong learners we must have them read some book-length literary nonfiction each year.
The first quarter of 2019 I made a conscious effort to read literary nonfiction that some students might find worth reading. I looked for:
tie-ins to courses, current events, and/or students’ experiences
good writing that wasn’t stuffy
books with at least some images in them
books that are widely available through libraries
books that are available new at under $10
Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure
Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip is lighthearted history, fun to read, packed with bits and pieces of historical fact, and illustrated with 1950s photos and cleverly drawn maps.
On Jan. 20, 1953, after Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as the 34th president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president, when back home to Independence, Missouri, as an ordinary citizen.
A few months later Truman got a letter inviting him to speak to the Reserve Officers Association on June 26 in Philadelphia. It seemed the ideal opportunity for Truman and his wife, Bess, to go East to see their daughter, visit old friends, and enjoy the open road.
Truman put the suitcases in the car and the couple took off by themselves, Truman at the wheel, Bess riding shotgun, keeping track of every fill-up, and telling her husband not to drive so fast.
Matthew Algeo uses his pleasant, often funny, nonfiction narrative as a lens through which to examine not just 1950s America, but the way the United States has changed since then.
The book could be used for literary nonfiction reading in social studies, English, art, and graphic design classes.
The Fever of 1721 ties together famous names from American history—Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams—using the story of a Bostonian merchant seaman whose crew had developed smallpox on the trip from England.
By the time John Gore’s brig reached Boston Harbor, one sailor had died, six others were nearly recovered, and Gore had begun showing smallpox symptoms.Gore was dead and buried within 10 days.
The government concealed Gore’s death for fear of creating a panic and for fear of an embargo that would ruin Boston’s economy.
From that beginning, Stephen Coss goes on to discuss the history and politics of vaccination, American-British relations, the history of American newspapers, religion in the colonies, and how the political ramifications of the epidemic laid the groundwork for the American Revolution.
The Fever of 1721 could be used as literary nonfiction reading in English, journalism, history/social studies, science, and health classes. The 1721 controversy surrounding vaccination for smallpox could be compared with the 2019 controversy around measles vaccination.
Between 1892 and 1954, two million child immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Another one million child immigrants were processed through the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay between 1910 and 1940.
In Passages to America, developmental psychologist Emmy E. Werner presents the recollections of some of those people about their immigrant experience as children between the ages of ages four and 16.
Werner organizes the histories by population groups including those from the British Isles, Italians, Scandinavians, Armenians, and escapees from Nazi Germany.
Werner’s book is literary nonfiction for a general audience. Although Werner was an academic, her prose is clean, clear, and easy to understand.
Passages to America could be literary nonfiction reading in social studies and English classes. Virtually every American student would find some personal connection to some immigrant group mentioned in the text. The pre-1955 immigrant experience offers opportunities for comparisons to the experiences of 21st century immigrants.
I’d like to hear from English teachers, particularly those who teach grades 7-12 and dual-credit courses about how their schools are using literary fiction in their academic programs.
If you have experience using literary nonfiction in English class, or if you work in a school where other departments have taken the lead in using literary nonfiction, I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Drop me a note via the contact form on yctwriting.com or send an email to me, linda [at] yctwriting.com
Reading nonfiction is probably the best—and certainly the easiest and cheapest—means of lifelong learning.
Such reading is obligatory for writing teachers.
We have to prepare our students to write in whatever fields they enter, and it’s hard to do that if unless we know what kinds of writing and what kinds of topics are used in other disciplines.
Below are brief summaries of my nonfiction reading for the third quarter of this year.
Trespassing Across America by Ken Ilgunas
Ken Ilgunas was working as a dishwasher in an oil camp in the Arctic Circle when he got the idea to walk the 1,700-mile length of the Keystone XL pipeline. He wanted to see the land that the pipeline was going through and test his personal limits.
He wasn’t athletic, hadn’t hiked before, and, although he considered himself environmentally conscious, had no political agenda.
This literate but easy reading narrative by a guy who sounds as ordinary as most of the guys in my English classes ought to appeal to those guys.
His stress on the importance of being polite to people ought to appeal to teachers.
Rust: The Longest War by J. Waldman
Ilgunas had his book organized for him by the path of the Keystone XL pipeline. Jonathan Waldman had to devise a way to organize his examination of rust, “the great destroyer,” “the pervasive menace,” “the evil.” He chose to organize it in terms of stories about men and women whose life work is fighting rust on surfaces as diverse as The Statue of Liberty, bridges, and beer cans.
To balance his narratives about rust fighters, Waldman tags along with Alyssha Eve Csük as she climbs over a chain link fence into the closed Bethlehem Steel Works in Bethlehem PA to take photographs of rust. The granddaughter of a steelworker, Csük makes her living photographing rust, including the one on the book’s dust jacket.
Waldman can not only make technical material understandable, he makes it fascinating and often funny. Rust is a marvelous nonfiction book to make available to your students as an exemplar of expository narrative.
Jane Austen’s England by R. & L. Adkins
Roy and Lesley Adkins focus their panoramic history of Jane Austen’s England (she lived from 1775 to 1817) on domestic matters arranged by topic rather than chronology.
The topical approach makes the book convenient pick-up reading, which is fortunate because Jane Austen’s England won’t be many people’s choice for cover-to-cover reading.
However, chapter titles such as “Wedding Bells,” “Fashions and Filth,” and “Dark Deeds” might tempt a teenager to thumb its pages. Once inside, the content is quirky enough to get students to read a page or even a chapter.
The End of White Christian America
In this unusually readable book of survey research, Robert P. Jones examines the impact of demographic and cultural changes since 1900 on current American religion and on American politics.
The first paperback version of The End of White Christian America (published July, 2017) which I used, includes an afterward in which Jones discusses how the election of Donald Trump in 2016 fits into the pattern of changes he wrote about prior to the election.
In those changes, Jones finds an explanation for why America’s white protestants have passed over candidates whose values matched their own, supporting instead candidates whose values seem a direct contradiction of theirs. The explanation is fear. With their declining numbers, white protestants see the loss of political clout and of their vision of America.
Explaining survey data so it is understandable and meaningful is an art. Jones is a master of it. Students could learn a lot from this book about how to explain technical material for people who aren’t particularly techie.
Failure: Why Science Is So Successful
Failure is a book about how scientists do science, which author Stuart Firestein, himself a scientist, says isn’t the way the public thinks science happens.
Firestein’s thesis is that science is less rule-driven and methodical than the public supposes, and that “failures” advance science at least as much as successes.
Firestein is scholarly without being stuffy, but the topics he discusses are not for for folks whose science education ended with high school physics.
Failure is more a collection of essays than a book that must be read as sequential chapters, which makes it a good addition to a writing teacher’s classroom bookshelf for those few rare students (and perhaps some of the teacher’s colleagues) for whom this little book will be a pleasant challenge.
The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth
Robert Gerwarth’s subtitle reveals his focus: Why the First World War Failed to End.
While we think of WWI ending with the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, the process of negotiating peace treaties went on for five years. During those years, European nations already weakened by war, famine, and disease fell victim to revolutions, pogroms, and mass expulsions.
The conditions of those five years gave rise to new states and extreme political movements. All that was needed for the cumulative after-effects to ignite another world war was the fuel provided by the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
While Gerwarth writes well, he’s not writing for an audience of high school and community college students. To appreciate his work requires more than a general knowledge of the WWI era and the ability to grasp sentences than can run 5-8 lines long.
I learned a great deal from his book, but I had to work at the learning.
My other reading
During the third quarter I also read at least two novels a week, most of them bestsellers of the 1970s. Reviews of those books will be posted at GreatPenformances.com before the year’s out, if they aren’t there already.
After last week’s post in I asked why writing teachers should read, a reader of this blog asked if I would post a list of the nonfiction I read over the summer.
I have a blog about 20th century bestselling fiction, but I don’t often get to talk about my nonfiction reading outside of education. I appreciate me this opportunity to share some of my enthusiasms.
Since this is my education blog, I’ve drawn out some of the elements of each book that have relevance to teaching writing or more broadly to education. I often find I learn more about how to teach from books totally unrelated to teaching than from education books simply because I encounter the ideas in a new context.
I’ll skip over Hochman and Wexler’s August release The Writing Revolution; I wrote about it here and here.
FYI, I purchased each of the nine books profiled below from my preferred online book source Alibris.com.
Happiness for All by Carol Graham
The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right according to the U.S. Constitution, but it happiness equally available to all today? Graham writes about America as a county divided not only in terms of income distribution and opportunities, but also in terms of hopes and dreams.
Carol Graham’s book isn’t easy reading—I’d had to take her statistical analyses on faith; they’re beyond my comprehension—but when she steps back from her data to look at the people, she writes engagingly about why her findings matter.
Many of the correlations she pulls out, such as the strong correlation for lower socioeconomic status kids between “soft skills” and their success in life, raise questions that any teacher or administrator ought to consider.
This is a book I’ll dip into again to reread those sections with particular relevance for educators.
Carol Graham. 2017. Happiness for All. Princeton University Press.
Glass House by Brian Alexander
This book’s subtitle, The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town, sounds more formidable than Carol Graham’s book, but Glass House reads like fiction.
Brian Alexander went back home to Lancaster, Ohio, a town celebrated in a 1947 Forbes article as the quintessential American town, a model of “the American free enterprise system” before the 2016 election brought southern Ohio to the national spotlight.
He weaves together the story of the town, once home to the headquarters of Anchor Hocking glass, with the stories of the town’s residents, whose good, no-higher-education-required jobs disappeared though mismanagement and private equity slight-of-hand, leaving in its wake a trail of shattered hopes and heroin addicts. Anyone who reads a national newspaper will
recognize names of some of the culprits. (One of the firms that helped dig Anchor Hocking’s grave had a part in the bloodletting at one of the major employers in my area.)
Alexander is a superb writer. He cares deeply about his hometown and makes readers care.
This is a book I will read again because I got carried away by the people story and missed significant parts of the business story.I found myself turning pages hoping everything would turn out all right in the end, but, alas, Alexander has given cold, hard truth instead of heartwarming fiction.
Highly recommended reading.
Brian Alexander. 2017.Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by St. Martins Press.
The Great and Holy War by Philip Jenkins
In this century, World War I is often described as the war that “marked the end of illusions, and of faith itself.” Philip Jenkins argues that “The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.” Without acknowledging the war’s religious dimensions, he says, we fail to see how it redrew the religious map and gave rise to the religious conflicts we see on every day’s newscasts.
The emotion and passion that marks Alexander’s book is missing from Jenkins’ text. Because he’s presenting an argument, he’s focused on presenting his case clearly without bringing emotion into it.
That doesn’t mean the text is dry.
Jenkins writes a scholarly text that’s easier to read than most daily newspapers. He’s not writing down to readers: He’s writing simply enough that readers can come up to the level of his analysis. For example, he often includes that chapter’s thesis in some form in each paragraph of the chapter’s introduction. It’s subtly done; unless you stop to analyze the text, you’d probably not spot it.
This is a book I will read again, probably more than once. I’ve already made a list of fiction Jenkins mentions that I want to read.
Philip Jenkins. 2014. The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. Harper One.
Great War Britain by Lucinda Gosling
This book takes a look at World War I as it was experienced by the upper class, female readers of the popular magazines of the era.
When the war wasn’t over by Christmas, the magazines switched their focus from balls and Paris fashions to photo stories about duchesses’ fundraising efforts and dowagers turning their stately homes into convalescent hospitals.
Lucinda Gosling studied history and worked in the picture library industry. She backs up her text with illustrations—there are many—without which it would be rather dull. Gosling is not a great writer.
Also many of the people mentioned in the text, whose names would be familiar even today in Britain, wouldn’t draw a yawn on this side of the pond.
Photos aside, for American readers, I think the novels of the WWI decade provide as much insight into WWI Britain as Gosling’s text.
I’m not likely to read this again, but I may look at the pictures again.
Lucinda Gosling. 2014. Great War Britain: The First World War at Home.The History Press.
Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Made to Stick is a book about communication. Its premise is that if you can understand why some ideas persist—even fake, screwball, and totally repulsive ideas—then you can use your knowledge to make your own communications sticky.
The Heath brothers are each involved in a different aspect of education, and, although the book is far more widely applicable than education, they frequently use education related illustrations and applications. Their discussion about the need for relentless prioritizing struck a chord with me because I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain to teachers why they have to jettison vast stacks of lessons if they expect students to learn.
The Heaths write well, with a friendly tone and humor. Having discussed how the military makes plans as a way of thinking about situations rather than expecting the plans to work, the Heaths provide a education riff on the military truism no plan survives contact with the enemy: “No lesson plan survives contact with teenagers.”
Every teacher on the planet needs to read this book.
Most of us ought to read it every year.
Chip Heath and Dan Heath. 2008. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House.
The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda
John Maeda is a visual designer, graphic artist, and computer scientist working at MIT. His book takes some of the same ideas of Made to Stick and applies them to visual communication, product design, and how we can have a better quality of life in a fast-paced, quickly changing world.
Maeda is a smart guy and his writing reveals that. He’s not pedantic, but he’s far from engaging. Also, perhaps because he set out to say all he wanted to say in 100 pages, some of the text that summarizes essential points ended up in go-get-the-magnifier size type.
If you read this book, take its chapters like multivitamins, one a day.
If you teach writing, you might read the Heaths’ book first and compare their six principles to Maeda’s 10 laws, not only in what they say but how they are presented. It would be an instructive exercise.
The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life. John Maeda. 2006. MIT Press.
Grouped by Paul Adams
Paul Adams knows a thing or two about the social behavior on the web. He worked for Facebook as Global Brands Experience Manager and for Google where he worked on Gmail, YouTube and Mobile.
He also knows a thing or two about writing off the web. Adams writes well. His prose has the directness and simplicity that comes from years of disciplined writing.
Instead of having consecutive chapters (old fashioned!) Grouped is a series of sections: Pick and choose at will, just as if you were visiting a website. The sections include quick tips that zero in on some super-important point in the already brief chapters and a summary—think: short, shorter, shortest—and resources for further reading.
The diagrams in the book have a hand-drawn appearance that underscores the idea of the importance of small, informal groups.
Grouped is a book about social behavior and, although the main audiences is businesses with products to sell, is relevant to teachers with lessons to pitch and administrators with budgets to pass.
Paul Adams. 2012. Grouped: How Small Groups of Friends Are the Key to Influence on the Social Web. New Riders.
Hug Your Haters by Jay Baer
Jay Baer is a marketing guy, but not the sort who try to push products on customers. His approach a public relations approach. He responds to customers, particularly if the customers are complaining, in order to keep that person as a customer.
Baer shows why ignoring criticism is bad for business (even if the business is a not-for-profit organization or government entity). He distinguishes between complainers who want a solution to their problem and those who were disappointed by how the business treated them and are seeking an audience to share their indignation. Baer shows how to deal with both groups.
Baer writes well, and includes a lot of material that’s funny. He won’t let you get bored.
There’s plenty in this book that is useful to teachers, administrators, and school board members. For example, Baer points out how today’s best businesses are shaping how parents and community members on whom the school depends expect to be treated by the school. If your school experiences a problem and delivers an Equifax response, you can bet your bottom dollar, its community stock will have an abrupt drop.
Jay Baer. 2016. Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers. Portfolio/Penguin.
Logotype by Michael Evamy
A logotype is a brand identifier made from type—letters, usually—and designed not to be read the way words are read, but to be read as a symbol. For example, if you see a certain fat F shape, you identify that logotype as meaning Facebook.
This is an entire 336-page book of such logotypes with short blurbs about the business or organization that owns it and a sentence or two about how the logotype reflects its owner.
This is a fascinating book for people fascinated by such things. If you happen not to be one of them, you won’t like this book at all.
Michael Evamy. 2016. Logotype. Lawrence King Publishing.